Football
Michigan Monday - Defensive Preview
By Tom Orr

Defensive Line: This unit revolves around one big man, Gabe Watson. He’s a senior this fall, 6-foot-4 and listed at 331 lbs. This spring, there were some questions about his… umm… dedication to conditioning, although he’s supposedly slimmed down some this fall.

Watson does to some degree what “Big Daddy” Wilkinson once did for the Buckeyes, taking on double and triple-teams and helping free up the rest of the front seven to make plays. He ended last year with only 37 tackles and two sacks, but those numbers didn’t really measure his true impact up front.

When the Wolverines go with a 4-3 look, Pat Massey will be the other tackle. He’s a fifth-year senior, and entering his third year as a starter. He matched Watson’s 37 tackles and added five sacks. At 6-foot-8, he’s also a big part of UM’s kick-block unit (he blocked two field goals in 2004), but many Michigan fans remember Massey for just one play last year.

In the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl, Massey looked to have Texas QB Vince Young for a sure sack, but Young spun away and ran for a touchdown to cut Michigan’s lead to three. If you’re looking to get a Michigan fan to drop an f-bomb, that’s a good thing to bring up.

That one play aside, Massey is a solid (but not spectacular) presence in the center of the line.

The backups inside (sophomore Alan Branch, redshirt freshman Will Johnson, and true freshman Terrance Taylor) are all young. Branch played sparingly in all 12 games in 2004, recording five tackles and two sacks.

Junior Jeremy Van Alstyne is slated to start at defensive end. He’s had a career straight out of M*A*S*H. Van Alstyne saw action in 10 games as a redshirt freshman, then blew out his knee the spring before his sophomore season. He rehabbed hard, came back early, and played in six games (starting one) before he got hurt again last fall in Columbus. He missed all of spring ball this year.

Junior Rondell Biggs (11 games, 1 start, 6 tackles in 2004) is next in line if Van Alstyne gets hurt again.

Junior LaMarr Woodley and senior Pierre Woods will man the RLB position, which is the swing position in the 3-4/4-3 scheme. Basically, they can play with a hand down (defensive end) or at linebacker.

Woodley was the defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl with 11 tackles, including four for loss (although you could probably make a case that they should have elected not to hand that award out after a 38-37 game). He’s quick enough to give fits to teams with slower offensive tackles.

Woods played through some nagging injuries last fall and his production suffered. He made only 22 tackles and did not record a sack, a year after notching 68 tackles and seven sacks.

Linebackers: Things get a little creaky here. The linebackers were not spectacular in 2004, and this year’s team is forced to replace two starters (Roy Manning and Lawrence Reid—who suffered a career-ending injury) as well as backup Joe Sarantos.

Fifth-year senior Scott McClintock is the lone returning starter, and he’s only a possible starter. He started 10 games in 2004, recording 58 tackles and two interceptions. This fall, he’s one of three MLB angling for two starting spots.

Junior Dave Harris and sophomore Chris Graham are both listed as potential starters at MLB as well. Harris played seven games last year, starting one. Graham was solid on special teams a year ago, and turned some heads with a solid spring.

True freshman Brandon Logan and redshirt freshman John Thompson will provide depth.

Junior Prescott Burgess is slated to start at OLB. He played in 11 games last year, making 27 tackles during the season (including seven against Texas and six against Purdue) and intercepting a pass in the Rose Bowl.

Pierre Woods is considered a backup at this spot, along with Shawn Crable (all three are natives of northeast Ohio). Crable is a redshirt sophomore with seven career tackles to his name.

Defensive Backs: Remember Marlin Jackson (the all-American who got posterized by Santonio Holmes last November) and Ernest Shazor (the all-American who got posterized by Tony Gonzalez last November)? They’re both gone. Jackson is with the Colts, and Shazor left the program early in search of NFL riches (he was not drafted and signed a free agent deal with the Cardinals). CB Markus Curry (five starts a year ago before losing his job) is gone too.

That means junior corner Leon Hall will now anchor the defensive backfield. Hall earned honorable mention all-conference honors last fall (9 starts, 48 tackles, 2 INT) and will likely be lined up across from most teams’ top receivers.

Fifth-year senior Grant Mason is on the other corner. He started one game a year ago, but also saw action as a nickel back and kick returner.

Junior Darnell Hood and redshirt freshman Morgan Trent are next in line at corner. Both can fly (Hood runs a 4.41 in the 40, and Carr singled out Trent as possibly the fastest player on the team this fall), but are a little raw. Trent switched over to CB this spring after practicing at WR last year. Redshirt freshman Charles Stewart is also in the mix. At 6-foot-1, he is the tallest of the Wolverines’ corners.

Junior Ryan Mundy returns after starting 12 games at safety last fall. He’s expected to contribute at FS, but has been slowed by injuries. He banged up his shoulder against Ohio State and left that game, and missed the last week of fall practice this year with another (undisclosed) injury. He is back in action now, but not expected to start, at least for this week.

Junior Willis Barringer is listed first on the depth chart at FS for this Saturday. Barringer started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2003, but did not start a game last year.

Sophomore Bradent Englemon will get the nod at SS this Saturday. He played in 12 games last fall and notched 13 tackles. Sophomore Jamar Adams returns as a backup.

What to expect: Again, there aren’t too many big surprises on this side of the ball.

They’re going to rely on Gabe Watson to clog the middle, especially in the 3-4 look.

They’re probably going to continue blitzing their fastest CB on almost every third-and-long situation.

However, there are significant questions in the back half of this unit.

The big question that they need to get resolved is how to stop scrambling quarterbacks. If that means using one or more “spies”, that could hamper their pass rush and/or leave them vulnerable in the defensive backfield.

Can the inexperienced DBs handle four and five-receiver formations on a consistent basis?

Michigan got absolutely murdered by big plays last year. Having question marks in your defensive backfield (and potentially being forced to “spy” on the quarterback) is not a good way to fix that.

The Wolverines desperately need one or both of the safeties to step up.

As for the linebackers, losing guys off of a so-so unit can be looked at in two ways. One way is that you’re losing guys who weren’t great, so you won’t miss them. The other is that those guys started, so they were presumably the best Michigan had. That means the guys who are left are probably on par, or perhaps worse than the ones who left. Michigan fans are crossing their fingers, hoping that it’s the former.

Kickers: Garret Rivas is back for his junior year. That's both good news and bad news. He's entering his third year as Michigan's kicker, but seasons one and two have not exactly been Nugent-esque.

Rivas missed four (really, 4!) extra points last season, and missed two field goals each against San Diego State and Purdue. His career long is only 47 yards. He was an honorable mention all-conference kicker last year, but rest assured-- every Michigan fan holds their breath when he trots on.

The punting duties will be handed to one of three guys, including a true freshman with one of the best names in all of college football: Zoltan Mesko. Zoltan! (If you've ever seen "Dude, Where's My Car", you're giggling right now.) Frankly, I'll be disappointed if the UM student section doesn't do the little "Z" thing with their fingers before every punt this fall.

Incidentally, having a true freshman punting for you is a really, really good way to get terribly inconsistent performances. And given Michigan's recent debacles in the punting game (numerous blocks, big returns, etc.) this could cost them a game at some point.

The other candidates are junior Mark Spencer (one career punt, back in 2003), and junior Ross Ryan, who has as much experience punting in college games as I do.

The return game is solid, between Steve Breaston, Grant Mason, Leon Hall, and Adrian Arrington.

Schedule

Sept. 3: Northern Illinois

Sept. 10: Notre Dame

Sept. 17: Eastern Michigan

Sept. 24: at Wisconsin

Oct. 1: at Michigan State

Oct. 8: Minnesota

Oct. 15: Penn State

Oct. 22: at Iowa

Oct. 29: at Northwestern

Nov. 5: Idle

Nov. 12: Indiana

Nov. 19: Ohio State

Biggest game: Ohio State. Let's be honest-- the conference almost always comes down to this one. It would be very surprising if both teams came into this one already out of the Big Ten title picture. Frankly, there's a decent chance that one or perhaps even both will enter unbeaten. At worst, it'll be a top-5 vs. top-15 match-up. In Ann Arbor, it’s a toss-up.

Most dangerous "pothole" game: at Michigan State. If you can answer one question, I can tell you how much trouble this one will be for Michigan.

The question: Will Drew Stanton be healthy? If so, he could pretty much make this a dicey afternoon by himself. MSU ran up 535 yards of total offense against Michigan last year, and held a commanding lead before Stanton got hurt.

MSU’s defense is not… what’s the word I’m looking for… good. But they’ve got a solid offensive line and decent receivers, so they’ll score some points. They could win this in a shootout.

Michigan has struggled in East Lansing, winning a nail-biter two years ago, losing the "clock game" in 2001, losing in 1999, winning easily in 1997, and losing in 1995. In all, Lloyd Carr is 2-3 in East Lansing, with only the (co) national championship team winning decisively.

Who drew this one up?: I don't think there's an easier way to cruise into the Ohio State game than an off week, followed by a de facto off week. Lloyd Carr can never, ever complain about the league scheduling again. That doesn’t mean he won’t. It just means he shouldn’t.

The bottom line: This is a pretty solid team, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the fourth-best in the nation. There are a whole lot of questions on the back half of the defense, and I’m not sold on the fact that they’ve solved their big-play problems of a year ago.

Unless they implode, they should be 3-0 heading into a night game in Madison. That’s a dangerous spot to be in during your first roadie of the year.

We all know the Badgers are down, and on paper, the Wolverines should probably win their first road opener in six seasons. That doesn’t mean they will, it just means they should.

The next week in East Lansing could tell the tale. If they get through there unbeaten, it would take a major let-down to lose to either Minnesota or Penn State at home.

Then, the trip to Iowa City is the only real hurdle left before the Buckeyes come calling.

Michigan could lose to MSU, Iowa or Ohio State and it wouldn’t stun me. You could talk me into believing that they’ll have at least a close call in Madison, too.

Realistically, I think the worst-case scenario has this team losing three games somewhere along the way and still end up playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game. Michigan could easily go 6-2 or 7-1 in the conference and share a Big Ten title, but talk of returning to the Rose Bowl and playing for the national title is probably too ambitious.

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